There is this tunnel drawn by Ernesto Sabato which we might call a horrendous psychological novel. It follows a murderer, tried and already in prison, who attempts to justify what he has committed by describing his obsessive love and what’s inside his restless psyche. It relates his obsession, the danger of it, and his stormy mind where it somehow finds its comfortable home. First published in Spanish in 1948, this modern classic, The Tunnel, is definitely a quick read, as quick as the steps the narrator takes in recounting his story.
The book opens with the narrator’s introducing himself to the reader and telling forthrightly that he has murdered a woman by the name of María Iribarne. He, Juan Pablo Castel, doesn’t seem to regret what he has done. Instead, he keeps going on and on about his peculiar tendency, what he thinks about things, how he lives an isolated, solitary life until he eventually finds the only person who can understand him and, yes, kills her. Only after two chapters (which are, fortunately, very brief) does he truly start to relate how he meets María Iribarne, how they share the same view of life, how they are lonely persons, and how they start their somewhat secret love affair. María is reluctant at first, saying that she will only hurt him, but Castel is insistent. Not merely because he knows that only María in this whole world can understand him (proven by her appreciation of his painting Motherhood), but because he is obsessed with her. He must have her, he must possess not only her sole love but also her soul, he must be the only one for her, no room for other men even if they’re just a piece of memory of the past.
Their relationship is a very complex one, as Castel is making it so. His mind never sits still and forever questions María’s love for him, her faithfulness, her past, the nature of her marriage to Allende, her true character, and so on and so forth. And those unbearable, never-ending questions do not stay put in his brain, he lets them out and fires them ceaselessly at her. He never believes whatever she says, and he gets mad every time she shuts her mouth in protest at his rude attitude and cruel words. He is repressive, too, though God knows why he thinks it’s in the name of love, always making her do this and do that—including making love—which, in the end, only manages to put her off. But the thing is, María is also an enigmatic person. Everything about her is a mystery. Probably, the reason is that the entire story is told from Castel’s point of view, hence no room for her to explain anything or to express what she has in mind. It’s so muddling between them, and Castel keeps pushing her to the corner until she has no choice but to dodge him and run away. It’s also frustratingly unfair, not solely because it’s a one-sided narrative but because Castel has already set his mind on the idea that María is a dishonest woman so thus he cannot trust her, which in turn bars him from willing to stop to ponder everything from her viewpoint.
However depressing The Tunnel is, at the end we will be left marveled at how Ernesto Sabato constructs the whole narrative out of a single, solid point of view. This very view takes us readers along the tunnel inside Juan Pablo Castel’s unsettling mind, a tunnel which is so dark, narrow, twisting, so full of “I shouldn’t do that but I’m doing it now.” It is this tunnel which makes up the story we read and inevitably hate. And, because Castel’s mind is a stormy, ever-moving one, Sabato is so right to write such short chapters and put them together into a disturbing, short novel. The atmosphere is so tense, the scenes are cut into pieces like those in movies, the dialogues are never too long and very convincing that you want to slap Castel in the face. It would be safe to say that the tunnel, Castel’s tunnel, is the point of the entire story. Devouring this book means walking into that dark tunnel and forever trapped there, reading what he thinks. Even worse, because his is a male point of view, we might find it quite chauvinist, if not, rudely saying, misogynist. Women are deemed untrustworthy when they have several lovers, women are deemed liars when they refuse (or, do not have a chance) to say anything, and they are easily judged unfaithful when you don’t know what actually happens to and around them. This is the thing that makes an excellent prose like The Tunnel an unbearable read.
Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel is wonderfully enjoyable in one way and cruelly devastating in another. You want to love it but you despise it, too. It’s such a grand idea to display horrific psychological sides of humans, because by that we can recognize the sordid weaknesses that we all have (except for the bravery to refuse to act hypocritically like what Castel has, maybe). However, it is also saddening to have women pictured as ones who lie a lot and keep quiet when they can say a lot, too. All in all, it is a maddening thing to make any judgment on this book.